During the 1930s aircraft workers emerged from obscurity to become a vanguard of the French labor movement. Virtually unorganized in the early thirties, these workers suddenly occupied their factories in May 1936, launching what turned out to be the largest strike wave of the Third Republic. Communist militants soon became prominent in aircraft unions, and from 1937 through the late 1940s the aircraft industry remained one of the most hotly contested arenas of labor reform in France. Throughout this period the industry remained in the limelight as workers, employers, and government officials grappled with major issues from nationalization, the forty-hour week, and shop floor control to the repercussions of the Marshall Plan. People who built airplanes, moreover, found themselves faced time and again in particularly poignant ways with questions that made these years painful for the French in every walk of life how to revive a depressed economy, prepare for war, cope with an enemy occupation, and, eventually, rebuild a broken nation after years of corrosive internal conflict.
For the aircraft industry, as for many other institutions in France, the era proved to be as pivotal historically as it was difficult for the French to live through. During nearly two decades of civic strife and international crisis the men and women who worked in the factories and design offices of the aircraft industry, who sat in corporate board rooms and in the bureaus of government ministries, fought over fundamental choices in industrial policy and thereby transformed the relationship between labor, business, and the state. In addition, what happened in aviation conformed to a pattern of institutional change in many other sectors of the French economy. This book explores this transformation by probing inside the workings of a single industry to examine what people experienced, what they hoped for, and why they responded as they did to the most turbulent period in the history of France since the revolutions of the previous century.
The aircraft industry also provides a setting in which to investigate just why France emerged from the 1930s and 1940s with its peculiarly volatile style of industrial conflict. Since the end of the Second World War France has stood out, in comparison with most other Western nations, for the radicalism of its workers and the size and frequency of its industrial strikes. In no other advanced capitalist society have workers so consistently questioned the legitimacy of capitalist enterprise. For thirty years the major trends in the postwar labor movement the survival of the Communist-dominated ConfÃ©dÃ©ration GÃ©nÃ©rale du Travail (CGT) as the largest labor confederation in France, the weakness of its anti-Communist counterpart, Force OuvriÃ¨re, and the evolution of the Catholic ConfÃ©dÃ©ration FranÃ§aise des Travailleurs ChrÃ©tiens (CFTC) into the radical ConfÃ©dÃ©ration FranÃ§aise DÃ©mocratique du Travail (CFDT) all suggest that workers continued to take class antagonisms and left-wing principles seriously in postwar France. Surveys even as recently as the 1970s suggest that workers in France, especially in comparison to their counterparts in Britain, have been more likely, as Duncan Gallie has argued, "to see the resolution of their work grievances as dependent upon the outcome of wider social conflicts." Likewise, French employers have been slower than their counterparts abroad to accommodate unions. The so-called corporatist arrangements that enabled trade unions and business organizations to negotiate wide-ranging agreements on a regular basis in much of the rest of Europe failed to emerge in postwar France.
Not that France failed to stabilize after the Second World War in its own way. Despite the traumas of colonial war, the collapse of the Fourth Republic, and the rebellions of 1968, postwar France never encountered a revolutionary crisis nor faltered (at least until the 1970s) in maintaining a remarkable pace of economic growth. And indeed, since the late 1970s industrial conflict has diminished to a degree, especially as the CGT and the Communist Party have declined and as the labor movement generally, in France as elsewhere, has fallen on hard times. Still, for more than three decades following the war France displayed a peculiar blend of social conflict and institutional stability a capacity both to meet the industrial challenges of the postwar era and to sustain a radical politics.
The roots of this unusually contentious style of industrial relations lie deep in the past. Labor militants in the postwar era still owed much of their language of class combat to the radical artisans who first articulated a vision of working-class emancipation in France during the 1830s. A half-century later, revolutionary syndicalists established an antibureaucratic approach to trade unionism that would also have a lasting effect on the labor movement. Employers owed a similar debt to their predecessors nineteenth-century entrepreneurs who created that blend of authoritarian and paternalistic rule that is still the hallmark of French managerial ideology. And behind all these developments it was easy to see the long shadow cast by the French Revolution: a tradition of insurrection and reaction made employers and workers keenly aware of the potential political consequences of industrial conflict.
Although the legacy of the nineteenth century remained important, events since 1914 proved decisive in shaping industrial politics after the Second World War. Amid two world wars and the Great Depression industrial life changed as profoundly in France as in any country in Western Europe. Between 1914 and the early 1950s workers, employers, and government officials fought bitterly with one another and in the process created the major institutional features of the postwar industrial landscape: a mass-based labor movement, a strong Communist Party, a network of employer organizations, a collective bargaining system, and a highly interventionist state. In the course of nearly four decades of turmoil the French institutionalized their unusually contentious style of industrial relations.
Just why this style of conflict emerged in twentieth-century France has remained the subject of controversy. Since the early 1950s historians and social scientists have addressed the question in at least four ways. For a time many analysts pointed to the slow pace of industrialization in France to explain worker radicalism in the postwar era. Val Lorwin, for example, viewed economic backwardness as an important precondition for the success of Communist trade unionism. After 1960, however, it became increasingly clear that spectacular growth and a rising standard of living for workers had done little to dampen hostilities in the workplace. Well-paid employees in technologically advanced sectors remained some of the most reliable supporters of left-wing unions. Prosperity failed to mollify conflict.
A second approach was to look to "national character" as the source of a distinctive French pattern of industrial conflict. According to this view, the psychological traits believed to be common to a people the volatile individualism of the French, the deferential discipline of the Germans, the dogged pragmatism of the British shaped the character of industrial relations in each country. Such an approach rests on doubtful stereotypes. It fails to account for important differences in industrial relations within countries. Most important, it assumes all too readily that individual traits are reproduced in collective behavior. Even the stunning work of Michel Crozier, which argued that labor relations reflected a French cultural system based on an aversion to face-to-face conflict, failed to escape the psychological reductionism that the purely cultural approach has involved. Nor have Crozier and his students done enough to explore how workers' habits of handling their superiors were collectively constructed over time through specific historical experiences.
Meanwhile other analysts developed a third approach, what might be described as an organizational explanation for industrial conflict in France. They focused on the political guile and bureaucratic ingenuity of the French Communist Party (PCF). In his study of "affluent workers" in the Fourth Republic Richard Hamilton explained the persistence of working-class radicalism in the 1950s by pointing to the capacity of the Communist unions to shape the attitudes of their members. Hamilton insisted that organizations, rather than social conditions, made people radical.His views dovetailed neatly with Annie Kriegel's path-breaking studies of the history of the PCF. Communism, in her view, was a foreign graft, but it took in France because of fortuitous events between 1917 and 1920 and then flourished because militants were able to build a "countersociety" that wedded workers to the Communist movement. Like Hamilton's, Kriegel's views shared an assumption at the very heart of the Leninist doctrine she opposed that party militants led a passive, compliant working class in directions that workers otherwise would not have taken.
The organizational approach begged as many questions as it answered. To be sure, discipline, cunning, and leadership served Communists well in their effort to build a movement. Once the PCF finally became a stable, mass-based party during the Popular Front, it certainly became as well an autonomous force in French political life. But it remains unclear why so many workers who never embraced the party cooperated readily with its militants at the workplace. Moreover, from what historians have discovered about the political vitality of local working-class communities in the nineteenth century, it no longer seems tenable to assume that ordinary workers in the twentieth century were the passive, malleable actors that the organizational approach has implied. To understand the impact of the PCF on working-class radicalism, we need to know more about life in and around the local unions and factory cells where militants tried to organize workers.
Some historians and sociologists have adopted a fourth approach to industrial conflict, one that calls attention to the importance of politics and the state. Edward Shorter and Charles Tilly have made the most ambitious effort along these lines by examining strike patterns in France since the nineteenth century. They trace how the strike was transformed from the lengthy local protests of skilled craftsmen, typical of industrial conflict in the 1890s, into the brief, large-scale walkouts that became common in the postwar period. Shorter and Tilly argue that urbanization and industrialization gradually enabled militants to build stronger unions and that as unions became more centralized, and as the state became more involved in the economy, workers increasingly used work stoppages to pressure political authorities at the national level. Strikes, though ostensibly over economic issues, became part of an organized struggle to win a voice for workers in the policy. Not surprisingly, in Shorter and Tilly's view, the big strike waves of 1906, 1919, 1936, and 1947 nearly always coincided with political crises moments when workers could hope to influence the character of a regime or its policies. By the 1950s French workers had come to rely on short, massive demonstration strikes to make their voices heard in parliament and the ministries the centers of power from which they were largely excluded. The strike, then, continued to be a political weapon in postwar France, in contrast to Northern and Central Europe, where the capacity of labor parties to take power encouraged workers to shift the locus of conflict from the workplace to parliament.
Shorter and Tilly's work marked an important advance in the study of industrial politics for two reasons. It offered a way to keep organizational life at the center of the analysis without neglecting the larger social and economic context in which militants built their institutions. Furthermore, Shorter and Tilly's approach identified state officials as major protagonists in industrial politics and state structure as a crucial factor helping shape the way industrial conflict evolved. Industrial relations experts had for a long time considered the state as a third partner, along with business and labor, in the triangle of industrial conflict. But Shorter and Tilly took the role of the state more seriously than most scholars had done before. They made a convincing case for putting politics at the center of an explanation for why France had such high rates of industrial conflict in the postwar era.
Yet Shorter and Tilly's work has its shortcomings. It does not take consciousness into account, that is, the subjective understanding of the world that workers, employers, and state officials inevitably brought to their conflicts. Shorter and Tilly assumed all too easily, for example, that in building unions, workers simply maximized their "organizational resources" at a given moment and channeled their protests as the logic of the circumstances required. This approach overlooks the importance of culture, not in the simplistic sense of national character, but in the anthropological sense that workers had to perceive their world through the mental lens of ideas, attitudes, and values. Given the range of convictions that could move workers in any large factory and the ideological conflict that divided the labor movement in France, it was not always easy for workers to come to a common understanding of their collective interests, much less to agree on workable strategies for collective action. Nor did workers share common views about employers, state officials, or the state. Between 1914 and 1950, moreover, catastrophic events threw the lives of most workers and their families, at one time or another, into turmoil. Nearly all were forced to adapt their views to make sense of a changing world. To understand industrial conflict in France, then, we need to examine how workers, employers, and state officials perceived their interests, made choices, improvised with their opportunities, and grappled with the unintended consequences of their actions.
This book takes up the challenge by exploring how workers, employers, and state officials transformed industrial relations in a single industry between 1930 and 1950. Like Shorter and Tilly, I analyze labor relations as a triangular affair since state officials were just as important as workers and employers in shaping industrial combat. But by confining myself to one industry, I can also explore the internal politics of industrial life, the process by which workers, employers, and state officials learned from experience, changed their ideas, and adapted over time to depression, war, and political conflict.
This study deliberately cuts across the usual historiographical boundaries between the Third Republic, Vichy, and the early years of the Fourth Republic. To cover two complicated decades in the history of an industry is ambitious, especially since I have tried to understand all three partners in industrial relations. Yet, the long time span can hardly be avoided since it was during one protracted series of conflicts from the creation of the Popular Front as a political movement in 1934, the defeat at the hands of Germany in 1940 and the subsequent Occupation and Liberation, and on through the bitter strikes of 1947 and 1948 that the French reshaped their patterns of industrial combat. To understand what emerged in the late 1940s we have to begin in the mid-1930s, when Popular Front politics set the terms of conflict for the decade that followed.
A study of the 1930s and 1940s, moreover, requires a shift in focus from some of the themes that have preoccupied historians of nineteenth-century labor. The latter have, quite properly, told a story of class formation at the local level, calling special attention to the way artisans struggled to defend their crafts and their communities against the encroachments of industrial capitalism. Although much of this story holds true for workers in the twentieth century, the historian who studies French industrial life after 1930 must come to grips with three more recent developments.
First, by the mid-1930s the advanced industries of the so-called second industrial revolution chemicals, steel, automobiles, aviation, electrical power had come to replace the artisanal workshop as the strategic center of working-class protest. Although small enterprises still predominated in the interwar economy, it was increasingly in the big factories of such firms as Renault, CitroÃ«n, and GnÃ´me-et-RhÃ´ne that workers fought the decisive battles in industrial politics. And it was in the technologically advanced sectors that labor militants confronted their most important organizational challenge the need to mold a highly diversified work force, made up of men and women, young and old, the skilled and the unskilled, the native and the foreign-born, into a cohesive political force. As employers in the advanced sectors came increasingly to recruit a work force dispersed residentially and diversified by craft and skill, the factory, rather than the neighborhood or workshop, became, as Michelle Perrot has put it, "the epicenter of the labor movement," the critical battleground for employers and militants competing for the loyalty of a modern industrial work force. Labor militants had to find ways of building solidarity across regions as well if they were to assert themselves within firms that had dispersed their plants all over France. Technological change and the growth of advanced firms forced workers to take alliance building within the work force much more seriously than their predecessors had before 1900. By the same token, employers faced the parallel challenge of finding new ways to undermine the solidarity of a diverse and dispersed work force.
Second, during the 1930s and 1940s national and international events affected workers and employers more profoundly than was the case in the nineteenth century. The triumph and demise of the Popular Front, the defeat of 1940, the Nazi Occupation, and the Liberation these were not events that workers could chat about in a cafÃ© and then go about their business; they destroyed lives, shattered families, made and ruined careers, and forced many citizens to reaffirm or reconsider their loyalties. By the late 1940s workers and employers had incorporated a new set of political references into their lives memories of the sitdown strikes of 1936, memorials to resistance martyrs, stories of shame and betrayal, haunting images of Stalingrad, Hiroshima, and Auschwitz. Events, and the ways people mythologized and remembered them, had a lasting effect on political loyalties and played an important role in industrial conflict.
Finally, between 1935 and 1950 workers and employers witnessed one of the most significant changes in the French economy to take place in the twentieth century the expansion of the state's role in modern industry. To be sure, state expansion owed a great deal to earlier developments, from Colbert's policies in the seventeenth century to the less dramatic accretions of indirect government financial controls in the second half of the nineteenth century. But it was only after 1935 that politicians and bureaucrats made the leap on a grand scale to direct forms of state control that is, to nationalizations, planning, and the monetary and fiscal strategies we associate with the Keynesian revolution.Given the long history of state administrative centralization in France, it seems surprising at first glance that the dirigiste policies of the postwar era did not emerge from the First World War. But French economic policy on the eve of that war was still rooted, in theory if not always in practice, in the reigning laissez-faire orthodoxy of the time. State economic intervention was largely restricted to tariff protection, indirect taxation, the regulation of a private railway sector, and the administration of a few state-owned arsenals in munitions and shipbuilding. When government officials made a concerted effort, especially after 1910, to steer the international flow of private French capital in accord with a strategy of countering Germany's expanding economic power, they did so as an expedient and not as a self-conscious challenge to liberal principles. In labor relations the state's role remained limited as well. Social legislation was notoriously underdeveloped in prewar France, and although local officials often intervened in strikes it was always on an ad hoc basis. On the eve of the Great War the government essentially left employers free to run their firms as they pleased.
For a time it appeared that the First World War would destroy laissez-faire liberalism in France, much as it seemed to do in Germany. During the war the ministries of armaments and commerce assumed control over trade, the distribution of scarce supplies, and the regulation of labor relations in the munitions industry. Etienne Clementel, the minister of commerce, envisioned such wartime controls as first steps toward a postwar economy where businessmen, labor leaders, and bureaucrats would cooperate in the effort to modernize France. Similarly, Albert Thomas, the reform socialist who served as armament minister, introduced a system of joint-arbitration commissions and shop floor representation into munitions plants innovations that he hoped would pave the way toward greater cooperation between workers and employers after the war. Moderate labor leaders, who had won new respect in government circles for supporting the war effort, shared many of the same goals. On the eve of the armistice in 1918 all these reformers nurtured hopes that France would make a clean break with the prewar laissez-faire order.
The realities turned out otherwise. After the armistice conservatives, under the stewardship of Georges Clemenceau, dismantled state controls and deregulated markets as promptly as possible much to the satisfaction of businessmen, who urged a return to unfettered free enterprise. Conservatives liquidated labor gains just as swiftly. After employers and government officials crushed workers in the general strike of 1920, they freely ignored every plank of labor's reform program. Collective bargaining, shop floor representation, selective nationalizations, even simple legal protections for trade union militants quickly reverted to the status of pipe dreams for labor militants, who once again found themselves isolated in a political ghetto. The schism of 1920 between Communists and Socialists weakened the left all the more, and throughout the twenties and early thirties the labor movement remained enfeebled and divided, of little consequence to national policy. To be sure, laissez-faire liberals could not hope to restore every aspect of the prewar order: during the 1920s conservative and centrist governments alike retained the income tax, subsidized industrial reconstruction, and enhanced the state's role in mining, the petroleum industry, and the railroads. But overall, the allied victory in 1918 and the defeat of labor in 1920 enabled a conservative elite to uphold the free market and most of the prewar economic boundaries of the state.
The breakthrough to the state-managed capitalism that would characterize the economy of the Fifth Republic came only after 1935, when two cycles of left-wing innnovation and conservative stabilization transformed the state's role in France. First under LÃ©on Blum's Popular Front government in 1936, and then again between 1945 and 1947, left-wing governments nationalized industries, expanded the public sector, and instituted sweeping reforms in labor relations. Somewhat surprisingly, the more conservative regimes that followed (in 1938 and 1947) largely preserved state controls. Even the Vichy regime introduced policies that gave the state a greater regulatory role. The depression, the massive strikes of 1936, and, not least, the enormous demands of rearmament and the humiliation of defeat in 1940 forced much of the business and government elite to abandon its cherished commitment to laissez-faire. By the early 1950s a new statist orthodoxy had taken hold: all but the most conservative politicians were prepared to accept the nationalizations of 1945, government control of most of the banking system, Jean Monnet's approach to state-guided economic planning, and a system of labor relations that depended heavily on the direct involvement of state officials. France was well on its way to becoming the most state-centered economy in the capitalist West.This remarkable expansion of the economic role of the state between 1936 and 1950 could not help but alter the balance of political power in modern industry. Almost overnight, workers and employers had to grapple with the emergence of state capitalism, an economy where many of the traditional boundaries between public and private disappeared. Although a few progressive business leaders were quick to discern the value of state intervention for salvaging the economic order, most initially viewed the change as anathema. By the 1950s, however, many employers had overcome their fears and had learned how to protect themselves in a mixed economy. Just how employers came to terms with state officials during the late thirties and forties, then, is crucial to our understanding of postwar industrial politics.Among workers opinions about state intervention differed widely. No subject, in fact, has troubled the labor movement more consistently in the twentieth century than the question of what stance to take toward the state. Before 1914 this issue, more than any other, divided the two dominant factions of the labor movement. Revolutionary syndicalists called for abolishing the state altogether and replacing it with a decentralized system of worker-run enterprises. Such a vision, which owed much to the utopianism of Proudhon, made sense to many militants in the laissez-faire world of early twentieth-century France, where the state did little to rationalize the economy and a great deal to crush working-class protest. Guesdist Socialists, however, argued to the contrary. They upheld the view, as did the Marxist majority of the Second International, that workers should capture state power and wield it as a weapon against capitalism. The conflict between statist and antistatist strategy continued into the interwar period. Many militants clung to the syndicalist suspicions of parliaments, bureaucracies, and a republican tradition they felt had betrayed workers consistently since the Paris Commune. Communists, by contrast, gave the Guesdist tradition a new Leninist cast by hoping to seize the state and collectivize the economy. Labor moderates, in the meantime, had made their peace with the republican state. As a result, by the 1930s workers were hardly of one mind about how to respond to the growing role of the state in their industries. How workers dealt with their conflicting attitudes toward the state between 1936 and 1950 would prove crucial to the fate of the labor movement.
This book explores each of the three major themes in twentieth-century industrial politics: how employers and labor militants competed for the loyalty of workers in the technologically advanced sectors; how war and political upheaval transformed the way people defined and defended their interests; and how state intervention, which itself was a product of social and political conflict, forced workers and employers to reshape their own organizations, strategies and views. The aircraft industry lends itself well to such an inquiry. For one thing, aircraft firms hired a wide range of employees engineers, technicians, draftsmen, clerical personnel, skilled and semiskilled workers. Aircraft plants brought under one roof both the industrial workers, who typified the proletarian in interwar France, and the so-called new working class of technicians and white-collar employees, who would become an important part of the labor movement after the Second World War. The industry, moreover, was scattered around France, with major centers in Paris, Nantes, Bourges, Bordeaux, and Toulouse. Aircraft militants thus faced precisely the challenge of building alliances among employees who differed enormously from one another and lived in different regions.
The aircraft industry is also an obvious setting to examine how employers and workers responded to the Popular Front, the war, and its aftermath. Every major shift in French political fortune between 1936 and 1948 had immediate repercussions in the industry. During the Popular Front the Blum government made the industry a showcase for labor reform. In 1938 Edouard Daladier staked much of his rearmament program on an effort to boost monthly output of the industry sixfold a policy with enormous consequences for life on the factory floor. Then, just weeks after the defeat in 1940, Hitler demanded that the industry be put to the service of Germany, and for the most part employers complied. Until the Liberation aircraft workers found themselves building planes for the Luftwaffe. After the war, when Communists and Socialists clashed over how to restructure the industry, aircraft manufacturers and workers were drawn into nearly every battle over industrial policy. In short, for more than a decade no one in the aircraft business could escape the tough choices that war, fascism, and communism posed in France.
Above all, the aircraft industry offers a superb arena for exploring how workers and employers responded to state intervention. For one thing, defense contracting made the state's role in the industry visible to everyone. For another, the industry was one of the first to be nationalized, partially during the Popular Front in 1936 and partially again in 1945. At the same time a number of private firms continued to thrive. We can, therefore, compare the public and private sectors of the industry as well as assess how workers and employers viewed the differences. However anodyne nationalization would later become, during the 1930s and 1940s workers and employers in the aircraft industry battled vigorously to determine how radical a policy it would be.
From the Popular Front to the early years of the cold war workers, employers, and government officials reshaped the politics of industrial life in the airplane business. They did so in the context of political crisis, war, and enormous pressure to modernize their industry. My purpose here is not to write the history of aircraft manufacturing per se but rather to analyze the industry as the site of changing social relations and to explain why state intervention, working-class radicalism, and employer intransigence toward labor became mutually reinforcing in twentieth-century France.